Torchlight

Online Shopping: Laziness or Conservation?
by Kevin He -- December 12th, 2012

It’s the beginning on the holiday season, which, to many, entails the start to the stressful past-time of holiday shopping. This leaves us with the decade-old question: where do I shop? Or, more accurately, how do I shop?

Many of us keep to the old ways (and some would say the better ways) and camp out on Black Friday, ready to get the best deals to present as high-quality gifts a short month later. However, an increasing amount of people are now camping out in front of their computers, clicking around purely online retailers such as Amazon.com or Fab.com or the online presence of traditional stores like Best Buy and Barnes & Noble. The convenience of delivery, wider breadth of selection, and (often) lower prices, makes online shopping an ever-more attractive option. As a predominantly online shopper, however, I often wonder whether this convenience comes with an added cost, the environmental costs. In my mind, laziness can’t possible be rewarded, so there must be a catch.

To start off the comparison, it’s important to just think briefly about the relative environmental benefits of the two shopping styles. Online shopping reduces the total amount of driving to and from shopping areas, which in turn decreases the amount of traffic. In-store shopping, on the other hand, reduces the need for excessive packaging material. Furthermore, online shopping sometimes requires shipment by air freight over long distances, which is generally not as wide a problem with traditional shopping due to centralized distribution hubs. The question then comes down to an issue of scale.

A variety of studies have been done in the past decade to elucidate this problem. Obviously there are a lot of intricacies that I won’t go into here primarily relating to personal behaviors, but I will primarily discuss the more straightforward implications.

In 2001, a study by H. Scott Matthews and Chris T. Hendrickson through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In it, they consider a few other drawbacks to traditional retailing (such as unsold merchandise). In their calculations, they assume the use of air freight in all online shopping, which results results in a more or less comparable situation (CO2 equivalents of 1963 for online shopping and between 1704 and 2000 for traditional shopping, depending on the extent of unsold merchandise). Due to their assumption of a worst case scenario for online shopping, they conclude by pegging online shopping as the more environmentally friendly shopping solution.

In 2009, a similar study, this time analyzing Great Britain, was detailed by Sharon Cullinane. One of the primary facets to her study is the emphasis on behaviors. Ignoring that for the moment, she also brings into light the fact that shipping vans are much more polluting than traditional cars that you and I would take to the grocery store, and she notes that they may in fact cause more traffic due to their bulk and tendency to park on the side of the road. Another important idea she brings into light, however, is the idea that current online shopping distribution networks are still in their infancy and the consolidation of which may allow them to be more environmentally friendly.

So the preliminary verdict seems to be that online shopping is more environmentally friendly. But before we all go off and expand our newest and most expensive form of procrastination, it’s important to bring up a few caveats:

  1. if the item you’re shipping is coming from across the country, definitely go to a store yourself
  2. buying items individually is much less efficient
  3. consolidating traditional shopping trips is always a good option
  4. if it’s possible to bus/bike/walk to a traditional store that’s nearby, that should always be the better solution (at least for now!)
With that in mind, enjoy the rest of your last minute holiday shopping! I do know a lot of places are offering free shipping for the holiday season. Hope this was useful! Feel free to converse with me further about this topic in the comments below. What I’m interested is: do you shop online? If so, what types of things do you primarily get online rather than offline?
I’ve also attached below some of the sources I used for my research. There’s a lot of more detailed information I didn’t cover so take a look!
http://www.pcworld.com/article/36759/article.html
http://www.oecd.org/sti/transport/roadtransportresearch/2662057.pdf
Cullinane, S. 2009. From bricks to clicks: the impact of online retailing on transport and the environment. Transport Reviews 29 (6): 759-776.

2 Comments

  1. Sarah
    Dec 17, 2012

    Hi Kevin,

    I was excited to see that you wrote about this, since it’s something that I always wonder about this time of year! One additional thought on ‘in-person’ shopping: it’s always good to support local business when you can, so if you, like me, are lucky enough to live near a locally owned store stocked with locally made items, it’s a great place to find one-of-a-kind things for family and friends. Hmmm. Now I wonder what the carbon footprint is for making gifts yourself instead of buying them!

    • Kevin
      Dec 18, 2012

      I can imagine it being quite a bit lower, especially since most DIY-type gifts are made with commonplace items. If you’ve ever gone to Grist.org, they have some good columns about that sort of thing.

      But I agree, the move towards buying from locally-owned stores are both economically and environmentally positive by keeping growth within the area. Plus, they make for much more interesting shopping trips.

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